SONIC WEEKEND

An experiment in sound hosted by White Label Music.

‘Woah! I am sitting here back in work this morning, sifting through the contents of my head, trying to work out which bits really happened, and which bits I just dreamt...’   [feline 1 ]

This was the first in the White Label Music series of Sonic Weekend experiments. 17 international artists from diverse musical backgrounds spent a weekend in a large house in Swanage, England accompanied by their instruments and several barrels of beer. The artists were recruited via the Record Label website, it was first come first served, so there was really no criteria or selection process, just pure luck.

As many of the musicians had never met before, we needed a starting point before we began recording, so the sci-fi classic ‘Dark Star’ was used as reference. Engineered & produced by Pierre Duplan and directed by Ann Shenton (Add N to X/Large Number) the DVD and Documentary will be screened in the autumn of 2007.

Artists involved: Garry Hensey, Sean Hurley (Sunset People), Richard Bradley, Oliver Hall, Danny Keir (The Pony Harvest), Leigh Money, Grant Gordon (Staff), Jon Greig (Beat Bigot), Jash, Kaiton Slusher, Will Plowman, Jerermi Durand, Etienne, Mark Lowery, Matt Longhurst (Wire Mother), Gordon Charlton (Beat Frequency), David Davis (Feline 1).

There were 17 tracks completed in all; ranging from ambient field recordings to punk vocals & explosive lunacy rubbed shoulders with rational mathematical reasoning. There was so much diversity as there were so many diverse characters involved. We had chosen the film Dark Star as a reference point so the entire project was going to have a sci-fi space element to it. This was not a problem as most of the musicians were from an exploratory, electronic background, all familiar with the work of the Radiophonic Workshop, Musique Concret and experimental composers.

The Bella Vista holiday home seemed an unlikely setting for this project, but once the dinning room had been stripped down and transformed into a temporary studio, it began to morph into a sound lab. Having hurried away the housekeeper, we took possession of the keys of the Bella Vista, from this point on known as the ‘Good Ship Dark Star.’

 The kitchen was to remain the hub of the house and as soon as the squabbling over the best rooms was over, everyone congregated there. Marc Hunter [director of White Label Music] gave an introductory speech ‘let the battle commence!’ and all the instruments were plugged in and assembled. The power surge must have knocked out the iron lungs in the adjacent old peoples home momentarily as over 50 analogue synthesisers flashed and blinked awake.

Pierre Duplan [producer] took his position at the sonic bridge and over the next few days we learnt to ignore the film crew poking cameras into our faces and watching our every move. The air was thick with electricity and the hum of amps. The barrels of ale were cracked open and the seventeen strong gang started to gravitate into sub groups. As well as the musicians, there were Mark Oulsen Jenkins from RTR Productions [who cut his teeth making documentaries during the war in Afghanistan and reality TV shows], Joseph the soundman and Justine on camera 2.

Also present were Marese [photographer], Bill [chauffer], Jo [Garry’s girlfriend], plus myself: Ann and also Marc from W.L.M.

The project was an experiment; we had no idea if the end result would be good enough to release or whether the group would be able to work with each other. Were there going to be arguments and a collision of ideas, drunken punch-ups and bickering? We did not know.

We did however know that it was important to execute something like this to challenge standard recording practice. Purpose built studios can be a stifling and predictable environment, usually located in uninspiring places, but here we were in an environment new to all of us. We were hell bent on attempting a new recording method and to instigate cross-pollination between the musicians.

‘None of the artists involved had tried anything like this before and as far as I am aware, no other record label had attempted it either’ explained Marc Hunter of White Label Music. ‘We wanted to see if it was possible to put all these musicians together and come up with a cohesive recording.’

The sea swelled beneath us and the rain belted against the windows, squally showers and sea mist made the place seem cut off from the rest of the world. Time meant nothing to them. They worked constantly regardless of it. When the battle weary retired to their beds, a fresh group of Sonic Weekenders would enter the studio for their recording session. All the while Pierre sat at his recording station, being kept alive with offerings brought to him in a constant stream, bananas, wine, nuts and tobacco. Like pilgrims laying votives at the feet of a holy man.

Leigh would work in isolation in her quarters, emerging every few hours with her prose. Gordon had set up camp in the far corner of the studio with his theremin and collection of effects pedals, while Jash, John, Kaiton and Will had created a sub-studio in another room. The lads from the band The Pony Harvest [Oliver, Danny & Richard] worked together, adopting Jerermi as a temporary fourth member of the gang. On arrival, Richard had emerged from the cramped car looking like an embryonic Jarvis Cocker.

 Matt was sorting out his beer supplies and NASA samples. Garry consumed twenty cans of Guinness before playing a single note, David cranked up his huge modular synth. Bass players Olly and Will were at their stations and Richard powered up the Omnichord, home made machines and found objects were at the ready. Etienne paraded about in his black leather Lederhosen eager to start as Jo held court around the kitchen table. While Mark went off to interview the locals about their musical tastes, Sean prepared for field recordings with microphone positioned in top pocket, chomping on a large cigar held betwixed sovereign clad fingers. Windswept Marese appeared after a photo-shoot on the beach, and the film crew refuelled with pints of iced cider. Jash had raided the rooms for possible percussion instruments and John had recorded a spatula/kitchen utensil rhythm. Cables, wires, batteries and plectrums littered the 1970’S carpet. Outside amidst the fog, smokers congregated, backs to the wind, sussing each other out.

By nightfall the building had been totally transformed, any trace of the last family that had stayed there had evaporated. This building was officially ours for the next few days. That first night was like a house party with a mission. When the last stragglers finally went to sleep, the unlucky few without beds made nests in the hallway, under the stairs and on the studio floor.

There were no a Divas among them. There were however some brilliant minds and intuitive people. These people were unafraid of failure and unembarrassed about sharing somewhat eccentric ideas. This is exactly what I had hoped for, they didn’t need the guidance and direction I was prepared to dish out to them. There were a few quips and sarcastic remarks, the occasional glare, but all in all they were a jovial bunch, ready to experiment.

By morning the Sonic Weekenders were settled in, brewing up strong coffee and wolfing back breakfast. It didn’t feel like morning though as we had created our own time zone, everyone appeared jetlagged. Some went to the town for more supplies, while others swapped ideas and borrowed gear or went down to the sea to blow away the cobwebs. We shifted tables and furniture to make room for even more instruments. The kitchen was bustling and full of steam, a strange soup was being invented. Laptops were clicking away, chatter and music permeated every corridor. It was like a sonic psychiatric unit.

I was always pre-empting some kind of disaster, ready for the main power supply to overload and trip or maybe the main computer would crash and we would loose vital data, but that didn’t happen.

The most eye- opening thing was to be able to observe their writing process. Everyone approached the project differently. Some prepared in isolation while others leapt feet first into the studio in an explosive wall of sound, because of this diversity the end result was unexpected and brilliantly unique. Taking these musicians out of their comfort zones was a great way for them to discover alternative working methods.

‘It is just as important that we must diversify as a record label in the same way musicians are constantly exploring different sound techniques and experimenting. We want to challenge what has become a lethargic and stale industry. We [W.L.M.] have proved that this experiment was financially viable, and most importantly the musicians’ can walk away with a collectively owned piece of work, a great album.’

At the end of the weekend, the crew filmed Marc leaving the house and shouted ‘Was it a success?’

‘Well only one wine glass broken and no fag burns on the carpet.’

If you are interested in taking part in Sonic Weekend #2 go to:

 www.whitelabel-music.co.uk  and join the forum.

The album ‘ Sonic Weekend’ can be downloaded from itunes.

Comments from artists:

 Garry Hensey:

‘I decided to bring as little as possible.  I hadn't really ever

improvised before and was looking forward to the opportunity to do so.

Rather than take my entire gear I thought I'd just bring a synthesizer and a drum machine. Next time (and I hope there is a next time) I'll take even less equipment.I also decided to leave song-writing/pre-conceived ideas at home too.  My ambition for the Sonic Weekend was to 'be in the background making funny noises', and to have a good time doing so. If that can be classed as an achievement, then I did it.

I honestly can't remember anything ugly or bad, and this isn't because I spent most of the time drunk.  On the train back with Jo, Shifty (Audio Spyder) and Mark (Worried Cheetah) we all sat there in a serene state of joy - as if we'd all just stepped out of a world of our own making -laughing loudly as we tried to recollect tales of the weekend.’

Gordon Charlton:

‘My predominant memory of the Sonic Weekender is that of a mad woman 

brandishing her pickled onion grabber.

What did I get out of it? A serious desire to do it again.

What did we achieve? What we set out to do. That's important.

A good bit goes as follows:

(I forget the exact words, but the conversation about one of the 

tracks went like this...)

Another member of the group comes into the room and wants bringing up 

to speed on what I am contributing to the piece. At least three 

minutes later I finish rambling about space aliens, gestural 

languages and emotional responses. He replies, 'Uh, I was thinking of 

playing in C major."

A bad bit:

Needing to sleep and missing stuff.

An ugly bit.

Nope, can't think of one. Everything was hugs and puppies. Oh, I just 

remembered - cleaning a permanent marker grid off the notice board by 

rubbing it very fast with a kitchen sponge for about five minutes. 

Still, I managed to amuse the camera guy when I finished by 

announcing "Ha! Years of masturbation finally paid off."

Come to think of it, that was a good bit too.

Excerpt from Gordon Charlton’s blog:

‘It's 8:30 am on the first full day of the Sonic Weekender. As far as I know I am the first to wake, having been the first to sleep last night. Yesterday the house throbbed with musicians, camera wielding observers, conversation and music. Here is a quick and biased report.

Three pieces were recorded, two of which I was involved in. The first was a wholly improvised piece to a percussive backing created by twanging a metal spatula against a door frame, the sound then being looped and put through several effects. There was a moogfoogered bass, guitar, several keyboards - one emulating a mellotron. I added some simple swoops. Everyone played pretty much continuously and afterwards our producer, Pierre Duplan and our musical director, Ann Shenton hacked away all the dead wood giving breathing space to the instruments and imposing a structure on the piece. It worked very well.

The second piece was Matt's idea. (Matt = Wire Mother) Matt laid down a sequenced backing on his Novation, and switched between that and a CD of transmissions downloaded from the NASA website. I improvised a plaintive melody over the top. Mostly I kept in tune, but there were a heck of a lot of distractions, not least from Ann and  Pierre orchestrating us frantically from about three feet away and gesticulating to go wild, calm it down, use the milk-frother with a wire attached (I call it the frothatrill - it makes the theremin warble like Gadget the mogwai from the film Gremlins) so there were plenty of opportunities for me to lose the plot completely, which I of course did. Later, our wordstress, Leigh, added a "HAL 9000" style voice-over - just an amazing, sexy voice!) and I made my way to bed while Pierre and Ann mixed it down.

My plan to find a room away from the sounds emanating from downstairs was largely successful - only one instrument managing to find its way into my bedroom - will someone please shoot that ruddy thereminist! - so I fell asleep to the sound of my own worst playing, over and over.

The third piece was largely members of Pony Harvest - I think - but I was out to the world by then.

Mostly I slept well, apart from a period where my roommate was either tuning his motor-bike or constructing a by-pass, and I passed the time contemplating the benefits of smothering him. Sunday morning. Hopefully when the rest of the gang get home and read this they will add their takes on the weekend. Meantime, here's the Gordon perspective - i.e. from the kitchen, next to this morning's extensive collection of empty bottles and cans.

Yesterday I pitched Phoenix Asteroids and it went well. Garry took the bass line on my etherwave, I had the Kees Enkelaar theremin and Ann sat on the floor in the hallway with her Z Z Top red (a friend had been painting his guitars and had some left over - she also told a story about using someone famous' guitar strings - Eric Clapton or Jimmy Page or someone - as a flail with which to play her theremin and slashing the back of her hand as it whipped round, twice) etherwave perched on a chair - she had an interesting take on staying very still which I am told involved the use of a pickled-egg-picker-upper (the device used by Arnie in Total Recall to extract a homing device from his sinuses.) Random percussion was provided by Jash.

Later there was a frantic search for paper to write some lyrics down. When Ann asked me I had no paper, but offered some more lyrics instead. Something I wrote for my children.

Twinkle, twinkle little star

How I wonder what you are

You're a fusing plasma ball

Your great distance makes you small

Travelling through our atmosphere

Makes your starlight twinkle here

Twinkle, twinkle little star

Now I know just what you are

(It's great hanging out with artists - people found emotional content in my words I had no idea was there!)

Which was leapt upon by another group working on a piece inspired by snoring (everything is a potential source of inspiration) about the universe going to sleep. There was talk of my providing the voice, or of Leigh. It might have been recorded yesterday afternoon while I slept. It might not. We shall see.

My whirlees (lasso d'amore) provided a drone interlude for another piece - I was on takes one and two but not the final take - arms too knackered by then.

In the afternoon I slept and missed the choir of everyone singing for an a cappella piece which sounded astonishingly good - what bits I heard of it.

Also decided by drawing names from a hat while I slept was the groups for six one minute pieces. My group have yet to record, but I kibitzed a couple of the sessions. One minute takes as long to record and mix as six - possibly longer, people feeling they have more freedom to do retakes and add extra tracks. Pierre Duplan is a producing machine - people bring him coffee and omelettes while he sits at the mixing desk and the music keeps rolling out. Ann's genius lies in telling people their ideas are great and disrupting proceedings at just the right moment.

Plans get ditched and reformulated at the speed of light round here. One piece involved recording vox pop interviews with random people on the subject of home. My contribution was to be vocal-esque responses to the voices on the theremin. Then we went into the recording room and the voices were played back below audible levels during the session. So I just made twiddly noises instead. Then in the final mix the voices were brought back up to the top. Aaaargh! But on the plus side, Ann did her favourite - OK all go crazy for this bit - bit, so I punched on the pitch shifter. Fun, fun, fun!

I can't wait to see what today brings. Already I have been filmed ironing my chinos and posing with the iron as a hero of the domestic revolution. For the one-minute piece if it fits I have in mind to do some theremin plus delay arpeggios. But who knows. What I want is to bring something different to each piece I play on, and I've still got a few tricks up my sleeve

Sunday evening. The whole day has had a winding-down feel to it. People have drifted away. About half remain. This morning we laid down a beautiful piece about blowing planets up. Pretty, with an unsettling nervy edge to it. Listening to the rough mix I felt my contribution could be further into the background.

This afternoon has been slow. Pierre and Ann have been in the studio for hours finalising tracks. And we have enough to be able to pick and choose!

To pass the time I rustled up something on GarageBand, using the system text to speech to read the nursery rhyme in the previous post, with a touch of low pass, a bit of ring mod, a hint of reverb and the last word echoing away. Then a pad of some presets voices, kind of ambient Eno-y and gentle. A very simple, naive piece, which I think is important to it. I'm calling it Nursery Droid.

Whether there will be time or room to add it to the album I don't know. It's not important. I thought it would be nice to offer Pierre something that didn't need a lot of work from him. After half term I'll probably dig something out of archive.org and stick it on youTube.

Been listening to the final mixes. Damn good! Project successful. Wait till you hear it. :-)

Also got to give props to Marc. He has done all the dirty work - picked up cigarette butts, washed and cleaned, made tea and provided inspirational speeches. Main man!

Well, I had gone to bed, but yeah, the party went on till late.

After my posting yesterday afternoon the mood picked up. People stopped leaving and the remaining people found stuff to do. There was an optimistic mood in the air. While I was messing around with nursery rhymes Etienne played with the vocoder on the Novation, and came up with a M style ("everybody talk about Mmm, pop music") pop song - "everybody's talking 'bout sox in space, sox in space, sox in space [see footnote]" and people started ofering suggestions - add a female voice - needs some moaning - I offered a lewd mime with sound effects that had amused Ann earlier - she dubbed it "Theremin W--k" - I prefer to call it "Solo Performance" - but Etienne was able to pant excitedly into the vocoder like someone who had a lot of experience in that field. I also suggested a voice-over of Newton's Laws of Motion.

Isaac Newton wrote:

An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force. An object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an external and unbalanced force.

The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the resultant force acting on the body and is in the same direction.

All forces occur in pairs, and these two forces are equal in magnitude and opposite in direction.

All good stuff - people came with ideas and went away with ideas. Fair play.

I fell asleep as the virtually final mix was played back for everyone. As before the only sounds I heard were the theremin. Sounded a lot better than last night. This morning there is a calmness in the house that is belied by the gale force winds outside

     To be involved in Sonic Weekend #2 go to www.whitelabel-music.co.uk